XXIV. "Explosions in the Mind"
I was in Chicago on the phone with a friend of mine in D.C. The friend in D.C. is originally from Chicago, and I was calling to congratulate him on the White Sox presence in the World Series this year.
Several years ago we were in a band together, both playing guitar — he would play a strat through various pedals and, sometimes, with a violin bow; I would play a wonderful, huge Tacoma acoustic dreadnought, without any electronics save an instrument mic. The difference in taste led to wonderful arguments and discussion surrounding music.
He and I often talk about music, regardless of the subject at hand. After I congratulated him on the Sox, he asked me How is it going? which of course, like any line of conversation, led into a discussion — or rather, trading of complaints — regarding the lack of any music in the past year to have "blown our minds."
We tried to figure out why our response to Plans was so different than our responses to Transatlanticism or We Have the Facts…. Transatlanticism had, when it came out, been one of our favorite records of the year. One that "blew our minds" when we first heard it. Same with Cursive's The Ugly Organ, Sufjan's Michigan, Her Space Holiday's Young Machines, some others. What was it about these records that set them apart from other records coming out at the time? Why did they, effectively, "blow our minds?"
If we solved that problem, maybe we could figure out why we hadn't been having that experience with new music lately. Granted, there is always music from the past — revelations of Brian Eno and Phil Spector, Cream and Elvis Costello — to blow our minds with each new discovery of an incredible record; but where are the new records to do the same? They don't come around that often, but shouldn't they be more often then this?
"I finally found one," I told my friend last week.
"Okkervil River is amazing. Black Sheep Boy. Go get it. The song "For Real" will kill you. I think you were right. It's all about not expecting it. It's all about being surprised when an album is really good. I just picked it up on a whim because I had heard good things about the band like a year ago, and wanted to listen to something new this weekend. It blew my mind."
"Right," he said laughing. "I told you I was right, it's all about not having to expect it to be something increbile and mind-blowing. Illinois was fantastic, but we knew it was going to be fantastic. We expected Sufjan to put out something fantastic. Same with the new New Pornographers' record, and same with the new Death Cab. They're expected to be great, so either they just do the job, or they're a let down."
I agreed with him. We said goodbye, flipped shut our phones. Later in the day we would argue over the best Miles Davis record.
Not long after hearing the Okkervil River record, I found a couple more. I was at work, eating take-out Indian food with a coworker. He said he'd put a couple records I might like on the server where we keep all our images and manuscripts. He gave me The Clientele's Strange Geometry and Broadcast's Tender Buttons, both of which led to very happy explosions.
Eliminating expectation from music makes things so much better, and in the search for that surprising explosion in the mind, that immense orgasm of pleasure, we are forced to search for music with which we have no expectations. However, it is this expectation that forces artists to change as they record, to create something new, not just the same record over and over. Expectations are, in this way, absolutely essential. And it is that tension between artist and listener that brings about bands like Radiohead and the Beatles, constantly evolving and "blowing the minds" of their listeners with their evolutions. Examine the discographies of Zeppelin, Dylan, U2, the Stones.
When an artist is still releasing records, we have preconceived notions of what a new record by them will be like (for the most part…Radiohead, some others, are excepted), and that's just because we were there when the first Strokes record got released, so Room on Fire was no big surprise. It was good, but it wasn't mind blowing. Every now and again a band will reinvent themselves and blow our minds – Death Cab in 2003, Cursive that same year — but then they have to exceed expectations two years later (Death Cab), and it's easy to fail. The sophomore slump can hit on a fifth record.
Music snobbery — that is, searching relentlessly for bands no one else has heard of, and being criticized as a snob for it — is simply trying to find more and more music to explode in our minds. It's loving and leaving lovers. It's loving music and leaving it for another record two weeks later. The music doesn't lose any of its greatness, it is just our losing of the pleasure in the mind the initial response to the record brought. It's a character flaw.
And so we search for more records to explode our minds.